Sermon for Trinity 15: Matthew 20:1-16
The parable of the workers in the vineyard
Parables are truths conveyed in story. They use scenes and settings that would be familiar to the people hearing them, but they illustrate and convey meaning in the form a story.
As I was saying last week, parables usually have a twist at the end, and this parable is no exception. If you were left thinking “hang on a minute, what about…” then I suspect that is precisely what was supposed to happen.
I’ve read this parable many times, but I’m grateful to Biblical writer Kenneth Bailey and his book Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes in helping me see a lot of things in this passage I hadn’t noticed before, which I’d like to share this morning.
The scene at the opening of this parable is one that would have been familiar to those listening. Workers wait in a well-known location – probably on a main road, and perhaps near a market – for any casual labour they can be offered. Bailey tells us this was still happening when he lived in the Middle East. He saw Palestinians waiting on the main road near the Damascus gate in East Jerusalem, and Israelis would come along in vans to offer work.
So back to our parable. An agreement is made that the workers will receive a standard day’s wages for their work, and they are hired. Later on in the morning, the owner of the vineyard returns. We’re not told why he didn’t have enough men from his first visit; we are just told he comes back. The men are standing – ready for action and eager to be at the front of the queue. More unemployed hands are hired and are told they will receive what is just or right. The owner does the same again at noon and 3pm.
It begs the question why a competent vineyard owner would keep coming back, if he knew how much work there was to do, and how many people it would take. What’s going on? Apparently in the modern-day situation, men would go and wait around for work in the morning, and would either be hired or would go home. But the men here continue to stand around in the heat and humiliation in a slight hope that work may yet materialise. And so the man hires them. Each time, the owner says that he will be just with them. Perhaps by this point in the story we should be asking what is really going on.
Finally the ones who have been around nearly the entire working day are found. Note it’s at the eleventh hour (20:6 ESV. Many translations say five o'clock) – a phrase that has entered our language to mean a late intervention. These are the ones who had only the prospect of going home empty-handed to their families, having been humiliated by the rejection and disappointment of not being hired. Their answer to the owner tells it all – we are here “because no-one has hired us.”
There’s a compassionate tone to this part of the story, but notice the owner doesn’t just give them something. He doesn’t want to humiliate them further with a rather public handout; instead he offers them what they have been looking for – work.
So by the time we get to the end of verse 7, we have three different categories of workers. One have a contract – work all day for a day’s pay. Three groups have a promise of justice, and the last group have a job, but with no specific promise of remuneration of any form.
We’re now confronted with a number of surprises that Jesus’ listeners might not have expected. First in verse 8, a manager (some English versions have words like foreman, or steward) appears. We’ve had no mention of him so far, and it begs the question as to why he wasn’t doing the hiring, rather than the owner.
The next one is hidden from our eyes in the version of the Bible we have here. The original language now calls him “lord” of the vineyard. The Greek work is kyrios. When we see the phrase “Jesus is Lord” in the Bible, that’s the word it uses. When on page 3 in our communion service books we say or sing Lord, have mercy, it’s the Kyrie Eleison. And the next surprising thing the owner (lord) of the vineyard says to his manager is pay them “the wage”. Everyone is going to receive the same!! “The wage” is a denarius – a standard day’s pay.
The final shock is that they will be paid in reverse order. If the first to be hired are paid and sent home, and so on, then everyone would be happy with their lot. Paying them this way means everyone can compare.
So at this point, you can imagine that a protest is coming, and sure enough it surfaces in verses 11 & 12. “Not fair. We should receive more.”
It’s worth pausing here for a moment. The first group haven’t actually been underpaid – they have been paid a day’s wage for a day’s work. It is the correct amount, agreed at the commencement of their working day. The problem is that the others have (in their view) been overpaid. It’s the complaint of the other brother in the parable of the prodigal son. The generosity and grace of the vineyard owner to the unemployed he kept finding in the market place is uncomfortable and provocative.
Here’s how Bailey imagined the owner might respond to the complaints:
You have no complaint! Justice is served! I have given you what I agreed to pay you. You are free to do what you like with what is yours! And I am free to do what I like with what is mine! I chose to pay these men a living wage. You will be able to go home to your wives and children and proudly announce that you found work and have a fuII day's pay. I want these other men to be able to walk in the doors of their houses with the same joy in their hearts and the same money in their pockets. I want their children and wives to be as proud of them as yours are of you.
So you worked through the heat of the day, did you? That's fine. And what do you think I was doing during the heat of the day? Enjoying a traditional siesta? I was on the road to and from the market-trying to demonstrate compassion to others who, like you, are in need of employment. I could have sent my manager to do this. I didn't! I went myself to demonstrate solidarity with the men and help alleviate their suffering. Why are you jealous of them and angry at me? You must understand that I am not only just – I am also merciful and compassionate, because mercy and compassion are a part of justice! Have you never read the servant songs of the prophet Isaiah?
On what basis should the grace I show others irritate you? It appears that you do not care whether or not they can preserve their self-worth or feed their families. You want to take more for yourselves. I have chosen to give more of myself You want to be richer the end of the day. I have chosen to be poorer at the end of the day. Don't try to control me! Take your just wage and get out! 1
Of course, this parable was never intended to be a template for industrial relations. Business owners would want to keep their labour costs down, not give out extra to people. Workers would want the same hourly rate for everyone working in the same role.
And it’s not just in business or trade that this thinking applies. Just think about how long it can take for communities or workplaces to regard someone as fully part of things, rather than a newcomer. There are some villages and towns where you can live there 20 years or more and still be an outsider. There are some churches where you have to have been there for 20 years or more before you can go on the church council without being seen as a pushy upstart.
But this is about grace. The undeserved and unearned generosity of God, which can’t be parcelled up into units, portions or hourly rates. Jesus uses a story rooted in the world of employment, trade and what we would call economics, to show how differently God works with his people. And it challenges us to approach people in the same way.
The owner in this parable sees justice very differently – it’s about giving people dignity and self-respect. The legally minded would be calculating, but the owner – and by implication God – isn’t. That tells us that God’s grace is about lifting people up, regardless of their capacity to do so themselves. It is not earned or merited; it is given.
It’s also worth just noting where this parable comes in Matthew’s gospel. It comes after the story of the rich young man, who cannot relinquish his riches to follow Jesus. A man trapped in calculation, who cannot accept the infinite and priceless gift of the forgiveness and grace of God. And it’s immediately followed by Jesus predicting his own execution on the cross and resurrection from the dead – the giving of his very self and life through suffering in order to bring the gift of eternal life to us all.
And it’s also a warning to those who seek to control or restrain grace. The owner won’t be swayed by the ones who had worked longest in the vineyard to withhold or reduce the payment. In verse 15, he lays a question before his critics – “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me, or are you envious because I am generous?”
Finally the parable simply ends. It leaves unresolved whether the workers were placated by the answer, infuriated or rioted. That’s deliberate, because the parable is a story – a piece of fiction infused with meaning. The ending of this parable, as with all of them, is the effect they have on us, the response we make, and the way in which we are transformed. It leaves us with questions:
Do we know, understand and appreciate the grace God has given us?
Are there ways in which we try to limit, stifle or constrain God’s grace for others?
Are we jealous of what others have received, or thrilled and content with what we have been given?
May God give us grateful, generous and grace-filled hearts. Amen.
1 Bailey, Kenneth. (2008) Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. SPCK